Teaching about spelling


When teaching spelling conventions, teachers need to:

  • strike a balance between explaining spelling patterns and conventions, and building on pupils’ existing knowledge;
  • strike a balance between recognising patterns and conventions, and acknowledging exceptions.

Teachers need to know spelling patterns and conventions so that they can teach spelling actively and explicitly. They need to be able to:

  • introduce pupils to spelling patterns and conventions;
  • model how those patterns and conventions work;
  • encourage pupils themselves to derive patterns and conventions and to articulate those they have learned;
  • draw out key principles and the patterns behind the principles, if appropriate;
  • know and teach the exceptions.

It is not enough for pupils to learn and know how to spell words out of context. They need to transfer their knowledge successfully to their independent writing. Teachers can encourage them to do this by:

  • expressing high expectations that pupils will apply the conventions in their own work, and reiterating those expectations when pupils do not do so;
  • reminding pupils about the conventions during teacher-led writing or editing;
  • setting specific spelling conventions as one of the criteria for written work;
  • marking for those conventions in the next piece of extended writing;
  • setting personal or group targets to help pupils to ‘own’ the responsibility;
  • giving praise for improved spelling;
  • encouraging pupils to use wall posters or personal prompt sheets;
  • conducting frequent but brief spelling consolidation sessions and quick board activities, e.g. while waiting for the bell.

NLS Resources

This unit is a natural continuation of the approach to spelling at KS2, which is laid out in detail, with a great deal of supporting material, in the KS2 Spelling Bank. KS3 teachers should be aware of what their pupils have already covered in KS2, but should also assume that some of this material will need to be revised and consolidated at KS3. There is also a useful spelling list for KS3. The examples and exercises in this unit use some of the material in these resources, but KS3 teachers will find it useful to become familiar with each of them.


Why is it important to for teachers to know about spelling in order to teach English to pupils at KS3?

The National Curriculum for English at KS 3& 4 says:


Pupils should be taught to:

  • increase their knowledge of regular patterns of spelling, word families, roots of words and derivations, including stem, prefix, suffix, inflection
  • apply their knowledge of word formation
  • spell increasingly complex polysyllabic words that do not conform to regular patterns
  • check their spelling for errors and use a dictionary when necessary
  • use different kinds of dictionary, thesaurus and spellchecker.


The National Literacy Strategy Framework for Teaching English Years 7-9 contains the following objectives:

Year 7

Word level: Spelling

Pupils should revise, consolidate and secure:

  • correct vowel choices, including: vowels with common alternative spellings, e.g. ay, ai, a-e; unstressed vowels; the influence of vowels on other letters, e.g. doubling consonants, softening c;
  • pluralisation, including -es endings and words ending in y, f and vowels;
  • word endings, including vowel suffixes such as -ing; consonant suffixes such as -ful; modifying words ending in y or e; making choices between similar endings such as -cian, -sion and -tion;
  • prefixes, including antonym prefixes, e.g. ir-, un-;
  • the spellings of high-frequency words including common homophones;
  • the use of the apostrophe – link to word level punctuation including: omissions; the possessive apostrophe; apostrophising plurals, e.g. ladies’ coats, and words ending in s; the exception of possessive pronouns;
  • the spellings of key words in each subject.

Spelling strategies

To continue learning, constructing and checking spellings, pupils should be able to:

  • recognise and record personal errors, corrections, investigations, conventions, exceptions and new vocabulary;
  • sound out words phonemically and by syllables;
  • draw on analogies to known words, roots, derivations, word families, morphology and familiar spelling patterns;
  • identify words which pose a particular challenge and learn them by using mnemonics, multi-sensory re-inforcement and memorising critical features;
  • use the quartiles of a dictionary and find words beyond the initial letter;
  • make effective use of a spellchecker, recognising where it might not be sufficient or appropriate.

Year 8

Word level: Spelling

Pupils should be taught to:

  • review, consolidate and secure the spelling conventions covered in Year 7 which include:
  • vowel choices;
  • pluralisation;
  • word endings;
  • prefixes and suffixes;
  • apostrophes;
  • homophones;
  • revise and remember high-frequency spellings;
  • investigate lexical patterns in new vocabulary;
  • learn complex polysyllabic words and unfamiliar words which do not conform to regular patterns;
  • secure the spelling of key terms and new words from across the curriculum;

Spelling strategies

  • devise their own ways to improve their spelling, building on strategies from Year 7 including:
  • maintaining a personal record of spelling difficulties and development;
  • applying spelling rules and recognising exceptions;
  • using dictionaries and spellcheckers where appropriate;
  • sounding out and syllabifying;
  • memorising critical features;
  • drawing on word structures, families and derivations;
  • using analogy.

Year 9

Word level: Spelling

Pupils should be taught to:

  • review all aspects of spelling covered in Years 7 and 8 and continue to improve their spelling by applying knowledge of spelling conventions;
  • spell accurately all high-frequency words and new terms from all subject areas;

Spelling strategies

  • recognise their strengths as spellers, identify areas where they need to improve and use appropriate strategies to eliminate persistent errors;
  • address personal difficulties with words through strategies which include:
  • experimenting with different ways of learning and remembering difficult spellings, e.g. mnemonics;
  • applying knowledge of word origins, families and morphology;
  • identifying common spelling patterns and conventions in their growing vocabulary;
  • make use of different kinds of dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker.

What are pupils quite good at and what do they need to develop in this area at KS3?

Good at …

  • Most pupils spell most words correctly. The average KS3 pupil made only 3.2 errors in 100 words.
  • girls tend to spell better than boys – 2.9 errors in 100 words compared to 5.5 errors in 100 words for boys

Need to develop…

The most common patterns of error at KS3 (based on the analysis of SATs at KS3) are:

  • omissions (single letters and syllables in polysyllabic words), e.g. stad for stand, rember for remember;
  • phonetically plausible choices in polysyllabic words, e.g. shorely for surely;
  • homophones, e.g. know and no, your and you’re, coarse and course;
  • unstressed medial vowels e.g. seperate for separate, definately for definitely;
  • consonant doubling in more complex words (including prefixes), e.g. embarassment for embarrassment; occassionally for occasionally; dissappear for disappear;
  • endings (pluralisation, suffixes, grammar) e.g. walkd for walked; confusion of -ible and -able, -ent and -ant;
  • word division and hyphenation , e.g. alot for a lot, infact for in fact; re-act for react, grand-father for grandfather;
  • careless slips;
  • other errors.

More evidence about KS3 pupils’ performance in spelling

QCA, 1999 Standards at KS3 English: Report on the 1999 curriculum assessment for 14 year olds

  • Most pupils spell well. The average pupil made only 3.2 errors in 100 words. Situation is improving – in 1998 the average was 4.6 per 100.
  • girls tend to spell better than boys – 2.9 per 100 compared to 5.5 per 100 for boys
  • spelling improves markedly with level. Pupils achieving level 7 make only 0.8 errors per 100 words, steady improvement through levels 5, 6 & 7 (2.7, 2.5, 2.8). At level 4 pupils’ spelling remains weak (not too bad though!) with 6 errors per 100 words average.

Errors pupils make follow clear patterns:

  • 20.6% were errors of omission, e.g of phonemes, e.g. rem(em)ber; of single letters, e.g. aquired;
  • 6.1% were errors in the endings of words, e.g. beautifull; or adverb formation errors, e.g. basicly;
  • 28.3% were errors associated with sound: homophones, e.g. past/passed; or phonetically plausible errors;
  • 42.1% were other errors including errors in inversion; incorrect consonant doubling; errors in word division; and implausible
  • remaining 2.9% of errors did not fall into any of the above categories.

The most common errors produced by pupils in this age group are ‘implausible’. This category is used chiefly for words with more than one spelling error. The large proportion of errors of this sort may indicate that pupils are using a variety of unfamiliar words in their work.

At the highest levels, most spelling errors were ‘phonetically plausible’. This suggests that pupils are using the phonetic representation in preference to other strategies to help them spell unfamiliar words. At lower levels errors are more likely to involve omission.

The high figures for phonetically plausible errors show that KS3 pupils already know phoneme-based spelling rules, and are using them as the basis for guessing a word’s spelling. Pupils’ weakness lies either in not knowing the morpheme-based patterns and conventions (explained in this Unit), or in not knowing the idiosyncratic details of the word concerned.

The KS2 & KS3 spelling lists contain some of the words most commonly mis-spelt. The list of most direct relevance to English teachers is that for general spelling, which includes about 160 words. There are shorter lists of more specialist vocabulary from other subject areas. In all the lists, most of the words are morphologically complex, which confirms the need for more awareness of morpheme-based patterns and conventions.


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